Today we will be hosting a panel discussion on creative forms of Palestinian resistance with Zena Agha, Nehad Khader, and Rasha Abdulhadi. The panel will discuss the position and perceptions of gender within creative forms of Palestinian resistance, including through film, art, music, and poetry. The speakers will also discuss their own creative work and its location within resistance discourse. And, so, just a little bit about the speakers because we’re going to hear about them in less than a minute right now.
Zena Agha is an Iraqi Palestinian writer and poet as well as the U.S. policy fellow for Al Shabaka, the Palestinan policy network. Her areas of expertise include Israeli settlement building and the Occupied Palestinian Territories with a special focus on Jerusalem, refugees, and spatial practices. Nehad Khader is a film maker, curator, editor, and cultural historian trained in media and literature by black and Palestinian creators. She is the program director at Philadelphia’s Black Star film festival and was the founding curator of the DC-Palestinian film and arts festival for six years. Rasha Abdulhadi is a queer Palestinian Southerner who grew up between Damascus, Syria and rural Georgia, and cut their teeth organizing on the south side end of Chicago and Atlanta. Rasha is a member of the Radius of Arab American writers, Justice for Muslims Healing Collective, and Alternate Roots; and is the current executive director at Split This Rock.
Since I’m on the end I guess I’ll go first. Can everyone hear me okay? So, my name is Zena Agha, my pronoun is she. A bit about the work that I do, I guess sort of my art runs a gamut a little bit. I’m most known for and I’m most comfortable writing fiction and poetry. My day job is in policy, so I’m actually here holding my nose and walking around the other side of Foggy Bottom.
The rest of the time I write poetry and I write fiction on Palestine, but also on Iraq and sort of the wider pan-Arab question as well as diasporic experiences. Being raised in the UK, as you can probably tell, I spend a lot of time thinking about diasporic communities, how they relate to their homeland, and how they understand decolonization through living in exile. I’ll leave it and there and I’m sure we’ll revisit a lot of the themes.
Hi everyone, my name is Rasha. I use they [and] them pronouns, so I feel very aware of that positioning as I’m on a panel to talk about female identity and being a woman, and sort of the navigations of that. So, maybe we’ll get into some of that and the complexity. I have a few photos I just wanted to show as I talk about some of the work that I do. The last time I was on a panel, for the Association of Writing Programs, I talked a lot about time travel. I talked about time travel from my perspective of as a descent of people whose existence has been denied altogether, whose living bodies have been located only in the past, never in the present, and certainly not the future. I also talked about time travel as a queer feminist womanist Palestinian southerner whose very existence sounds like science fiction to most people, including the people in my own families.
I also talked then about how time travel allows for the connection of the past with reconnection of the past of lineages and uninterrupted histories. And I also talked about travel to the future as a method of breaking despair and making a world that we all want to live in. Finally, I talked about magic as a practice of threading a line from the past into the future and reconnecting lineage, inheritance, and tradition to a greater sense of possibility.
You may notice that I have been clicking through photos of traditional Palestinian embroidery, Tatreez. And if you were also paying attention you may have heard some metaphors about threading in what I offered. So, this is one of the artistic practices that I incorporated in my work. I work with a lineage holder; an NEA Heritage Award Fellow from this year—Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, is my mentor—and, that is her, she’s super cute. I’m also a writer, so this is my chap book, and I have done graphic design for southern movements. And there are some folks in the audience that I have worked with in various solidarity struggles with political movements here in the U.S., that’s it.
My name is Nehad Khader and as you all heard I’m primarily—I don’t know what I am primarily…I’m a curator, I’m into the art and politics of curation. I did not bring flyers, my film festival is next week on Thursday, this is Black Star film festival, it is the greatest thing in the world, but it’s a black diaspora film festival and it also incorporates brown and indigenous voices from around the world. And, so, that is kind of primarily the focus of the work that I do. It’s around the use of art as a form of creating global solidarities and thinking about curation with a philosophy, with a vision, and with a political perspective of (kind of) how do we connect narratives from around the world, how do we connect stories from around the world.
It’s a festival that’s curated thematically. So, within a single shorts program you might have films from Tunisia and Ghana…and, I don’t know, Oklahoma, for example. And they might all be exploring blackness, or they might all be exploring migration, or they might all be exploring trans identity. A lot of kind of different issues like that. I think it’s a very successful method and way of getting people to think a little bit differently, getting us to kind of decolonize in the way that we understand narratives, we understand stories, and all of that. I’m also a filmmaker, I’m a producer, and a director.
Currently, I’m working on a set of films that are primarily archives based around Palestinian women’s histories. But I can show a short clip of a film that I produced, it’s called White Fright and it’s available on the Guardian, online for streaming. And it sort of fits into a kind of breaking our ideas and telling stories that are not often told, at least not in the mainstream.
[short clip of film White Fright]
Can we get a round of applause that was all amazing right there. So, now, kind of getting deeper, what are the main motivations and inspirations of your work? And then, the second part of this question is we have all these different medium—we have visual art, graphic design, poetry—how does Palestine, specifically, inspire and shape your work?
I guess some of the main motivations—I feel like I get asked this question a lot and I find it kind of facetious in a way just because I think being, at least for myself, Palestinian and Iraqi born woman and whatever, all these other identities which don’t necessarily mean anything but because of the way that society is constructed mean a hell of a lot right now.
Because of those things I find it’s almost incumbent of me to express myself in a particular way; and, I think a lot of the work that I do, a lot of the art that I do, a lot of the, not even just art, I think it’s important to situate art within the wider spectrum of social change and I think within that Palestine always just rises to the front. It’s something, it’s an injustice that I feel gets exceptionalized and I see it gets exceptionalized all the time, but it also gets forgotten and it gets sidelined by, you know, there are sort of refugees everywhere and then there are Palestinian refugees, there is suffering everywhere, and there’s Palestinian suffering, there’s sort of military occupation everywhere, and then there’s military occupation in Palestine.
And, so, you know, at every turn we’re seeing Palestine be exceptionalized and I think when that’s part of your identity or that’s how you understand yourself then it’s almost imperative that you express that in some and for me and for so many other that is art. And there’s a second part of something I want to say it but it fell out my head so I’m happy to keep this more informal, so I’m just going to pass it on and pick off what you say.
Sure, well, I think I will just say that I think one of my motivations/inspirations is, I grew up in Philadelphia, and the United States is a very racialized place and I learned that as a child, as an adolescent I’ll say. And, I sort of…there’s two things: first, if you start to see how race constructs itself within this society and that at some point its almost like you have to choose or you become racialized even if you’re an immigrant who doesn’t, you know, know; who still has to learn how race functions in the United States or you get chosen, you get adopted, you get, you know, all of these things. In Philly when I was growing up the intifada was happening, the second Inti—I shouldn’t say the second Intifada, the intifada of the Aqsa, and, in my kind of attempt as an adolescent to understand what all was going on, the war in Iraq, September 11th all of these things were happening, the greatest networks of solidarity that I was finding in my youth was among my friends of color.
People who just believed when I was saying all of this stuff that was happening and very enraged about it, people who just believed what I was saying, and people who supported me emotionally through it, and then also kind of engaged in other kinds of acts of solidarity and I think it grew from there. I wrote this in the introduction to this year’s Black Star catalog, but I feel like there’s kind of indigenous and black people in this country have known how to survive for a very long time and have historically shared that knowledge with each other and then with other people who have come here and I think part of what motivates me is figuring out how to tackle racism within our community anti-blackness within our community.
To radicalize ourselves, but also being a Palestinian and living in this land its difficult not to see that it’s stolen, it’s difficult not to see the apartheid whether its economic or educational, and all of these different ways. So, I think both being a Palestinian, that was the base of it, but growing up in an urban space was kind of what nurtured and inspired me to move in the direction of expression, particularly since narratives in this country are pretty controlled and white supremacists.
I am so heartened to be in a space talking with both of you, with all of you, particularly in a place where I hear both of you answering this question about like how a connection to Palestine informs or motivates your work by calling out all the other communities you feel connection to, right?
Through that experience and that for me has been such an important link to an experience of being of Palestinian descent in the diaspora and growing up as a southerner in the rural south and living in major U.S. cities that are incredibly segregated, that are incredibly gentrified, in which so much violence still exists structurally. for so many people to be able to read to take what I know from what isn’t from an inheritance or an experience of Palestinian diaspora and to understand and be able to make legible what’s going on around me in the US and throughout the world in a way that I think would be much harder to make legible if I did not have that experience.
I think about, there’s a poet, a queer black poet here in the DC area named C. Thomas, and some folks in the audience may know him, but C. Thomas talks a lot about how their own experience of identities that are likely to experience violence at the hands of the state or of other people is something that they feel responsibility for, like they feel responsibility to other people, to care for other people as a result of that experience of violence and I think that is something that remains true for me in connecting to a Palestinian lineage and identity.
Like how do I show up in other spaces as a southerner, how do I show up in other spaces as an organizer, how do I watch out for other people and read the experiences of other people when to me Palestine shows up everywhere sometimes literally in like the corporations that are connected or in the policies that are enacted and then you see show up in the rest of the world and here in DC or in Atlanta or in Chicago. So those are the things that I think inform, I would say, my connection to Palestine through artistic work or through other work that I do.
I also find that so much of what motivates me is a desire to stay sane. You know, I’m hearing it from both of you as well, growing up there’s so much stimuli, there’s so much contradictions, right? Like I was growing up understanding Iraq and Palestine through the TV, I was understanding it from diaspora communities and at some point I felt like I actually couldn’t carry all of that in my head it couldn’t just make sense for me and some abstraction it started making sense for me in terms of how I expressed myself and that became my art, you know?
It wasn’t like an intention, I didn’t sort of turn a particular age and think right now is the time for me to write or for me to whatever, you know, whatever the craft may be. But it became one of these things where I felt like I actually couldn’t keep the contradictions alive in my head without losing my mind. Particularly, for me, it was around the first Gaza war in 2009, I couldn’t hear the phrase human shields without feeling like I was sort of missing something that the whole of the world was seeing and I was clearly not seeing it.
And, so, I sort of took to writing and initially it was very sporadic, and with time I understood that this was an age on a tradition of people who are oppressed or controlled in an alien society in some way, in the they manifest that discomfort and that confusion and those contradictions is actually artistic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of the most wonderful writers and critics and artists in this 21st century and in the 20th century are people who come from immigrant backgrounds people who understand marginalization, who understand what it is to resist.
I think actually, particularly coming to this country about four years ago now, the African American tradition has just been absolutely inspiring in the way that black people in this country have resisted from jump, you know, from the first day. That creativity has been such an inspiration and it’s made sense to so much of what I understand about oppressive systems, I guess.
This is something I meant to mention earlier. I really appreciate you naming the lands of the native peoples here, but I just want—it made me smile you actually made it sound more like an Arab word. It’s Piscataway are the folks, but the other thing I want to offer is an awareness of the other history here in the US of genocide an erasure of indigenous peoples in the North America and feeling a particular responsibility as someone living in diaspora and a descendant of people in diaspora of being in alliance and being in alignment and in responsible good relation with indigenous peoples everywhere.
So, kind of going off what you were talking about, Zena, and when we talk about art for example, you know, I come from Chicago—predominantly immigrant community, predominantly low income community, predominately marginalized folks from all different backgrounds; black indigenous, Palestinian, etc.—and, so, around 2016 a lot of us experienced all this trauma, all this, sort of, mental stimulation that was very discomforting and a lot of us, because I’m low-income myself, I come from a predominantly low-income community in Chicago, we didn’t have the words to verbalize that, we didn’t know what trauma meant, we didn’t know that when you were targeted for wearing a hijab or when you were targeted because of anti-blackness or because of hate, we didn’t know how express that or verbalize that and we lacked resources to even know what mental health was.
How we do we deal with this? So, in terms of your art, your work, your passions, how have you used this as a form of healing as a form of, kind of, your community to heal with you? Can you speak on that, all of you?
I’m inspired to do this, it’s so much more comfortable. I echo what Zena was saying earlier about healing. Art, you know, there is this part of it, too, that is not selfish because you’re sharing in as far as, in as much as you can be brave about sharing your work, but part of, I think, and I’m sort of obsessed with narrative, but a part of creating healing spaces is in creating these new narratives. I think a lot of the times, and this is speaking for myself, I would ask myself in spaces that I just felt really uncomfortable or ostracized and I had those experiences particularly around the university setting where sometimes I would go home ask myself if I’m crazy, like I was just am I crazy, do I see the world in a way that’s different than everybody else around me and how can that be.
And then you sort of build your safer space, I guess, or your safe space and you learn how to express yourself in those places and you learn how your art can become a sanctuary in itself. That’s not something that I’m saying for myself, that’s something that I think a lot of Palestinian artists have always expressed and other artists of color. But since we’re speaking about Palestinian women and resistance, then I think that and Palestinians, in general, created spaces historically that have expressed the history that we’ve experienced in a world where we didn’t get to write the history, dominant history, and, unfortunately, in a world where sometimes even we don’t know our history.
And a lot of the work that I do it always asks you when you’re applying for film grants who is your audience and my first audience always is Palestinians because we’re also sort of in a process of re-educating ourselves and I think for me, for art’s sake, isn’t what I’m interested in. I’m interested in political art, an art that serves a bigger social purpose. So, I think it itself has the capacity to be a space, like a literal physical space that can provide that kind of refuge, a space of refuge in the space of sanctuary.
And then, just to reiterate, really, that creating new narratives…I just came back from the National African American Museum of Cultural and History or National Museum of African American I don’t know, but black Smithsonian and it was really really really really really really moving. I only got to spend the one day, but to sort of go from the basement up to the top, and to experience that elevation physically, viscerally. To go through that experience and to reach the top it’s just like black excellence, black excellence, black excellence, and so, that is a visual representation of a response to the question that you just asked.
I think the question of healing is an interesting one. I think often artists get asked that question insofar as how does that art allow them to heal, but actually for me, it’s how do I enjoy art that allows me to heal. I feel like there’s something about the capacity of art, I know it sounds sort of art is undefined in this context and in many others as well, but I just feel like so much of it is just offers this refuge this sanctuary for people to actually read or watch or think or listen or critically, kind of, critique the world around them and it sets form to what their understanding without having to be a kind of intellectual essay or having to be a news report or having to be any of these sorts of things.
I think for me I feel the most, I recuperate the most, when I’m reading, when I’m things that actually just show me what resilience looks like and it doesn’t have to be, you know, I think and I’d be curious to see what my other panelists make of this, but I think we’re living in this kind of really toxic Arab identity politics where like particularly in the US having moved here and just sort of, I mean, not that the U.S. isn’t racist, my God, but there are these moments where I’m kind of astonished by just how racists is the core thing in this country. Country’s never reckoned with the fact that it committed a genocide and then literally kidnapped people across the Atlantic and now it acts as if it’s this bygone thing. I actually also been on tour since I came to D.C. I went to the national portrait gallery.
I was walking around the portraits of the presidents. The Civil War was like 150 years ago, do you guys know this? It was so recent. I thought, I mean, obviously coming from the middle east history for us is like centuries, like when America was founded is like the modern period for us. But I’ve been absolutely astonished by how recent this American toxicity is, this mess that America’s made. And I think, actually, when you’re surrounded by that and you’re constantly being faced with that, the period, just to bring it back to the question, the times where I find I’m able to kind of take space from that is sort of just things like going to cinema and watching films by directors and producers who have sort of a radical vision it’s when I read, it’s when I actually just speak to my friends who might not consider themselves artists but understand the world in a such a creative permutation that I find myself kind of inspired and thinking all critically.
And I think it’s also this perception that it’s gonna okay, I know it’s silly to say, but healing for me is kind of the idea that, like in a hundred years there’ll be all new people and all we can do is the best we can do right now. You know, like were doing our best, that’s seriously that’s actually what makes me feel better. Like, yesterday I was watching Boris Johnson’s sort of fumble into number ten I was just thinking like all I can do is the best I can do and all we can do as a community is stand strong and do the best we can do.
That’s really all we can do in this 70 to 80 years we have on this planet, so those sort of things I think really give me a sense of liberty and a sense of freedom and then this flipside of that is you know when I realize how short it is and how work doesn’t really I mean you work just so you can live really I then sort of think the only true thing in the world is art and is beauty and you know beautiful art is something that makes me feel really present and alive in this moment and kind of gives me the space I need to be able to think a bit more critically and more long-term. I don’t know, it went esoteric, but I knew where I was going with it.
I want to come back to something you said at the beginning in the question in thinking about what kind of language gets used in spaces and who has access to that language and maybe without being too contradictory, I’ll maybe offer somethings that are actually a little bit different than what my co-panelists are offering.
One is I don’t think I’ve ever experienced any space that’s safe and so for me the thing that’s been valuable is thinking about what kinds of brave spaces I can make with the people that I want to be in community with and what are the kinds of meaningful risks we can take together in trying bridge our experiences, in trying to come to some shared commitments about the kind of world we want to share and live in together. And, I mean, I think that when I say that I’ve never experienced a space that’s safe is that there are so many pieces of my identity that almost no space that I’ve been in can really hold all of them. And, you know, that may be true for all of us, maybe that’s just something we admit and then there’s always some grain of something that we’re reckoning with in any community that we’re a part of.
That definitely has felt true for me and I think that particularly bridging the pieces of like being a southerner, being a queer, being a Palestinian descent—how to navigate and bridge those spaces and bridge the learning and wisdom and possibility that comes from each one of them, so I’m a member of a healing collective, right? So, I think about healing a lot and I also think about healing and/in community. So, here, I’m gonna drop a citation on y’all in case you’re ready. So, Joe Kadi is an Arab-American trans writer, has a couple of books, Food From Our Grandmother’s or For our Grandmothers, I think it’s For Our Grandmothers, is a great collection of essays to read but the one I’m thinking about is by, is just by Joe, and it’s called thinking class.
And it really is about how do we understand and reclaim the histories of poor working-class immigrant black-brown, like indigenous communities, and begin breakup some of these binaries that folks might hold about our own communities and recognizing that our communities actually have much more expansive understandings of cultural ideas about gender, about sexuality, about politics, about how we relate to each other, about healing, and, that, how do we access these things and I highly recommend this book.
It’s incredibly readable. It’s really small, I think it’s out of print but you can find it on Powell’s. I think that something that I’ve experienced in terms of community response, I found myself welcomed in shared struggle. I have found that the times when I have asked for things that I’ve needed, it, rather than being oppositional, it’s created a space for more people to ask for what they needed, and that is something that reminds, helps me stay brave, right? Remembering that in times where maybe I’m afraid to ask for something that I know I need in a space, knowing that there’s probably someone else there who’s more afraid or even less protected than I am and that my ability to ask for something helps to create more space for them.
Great, thank you. So, going into community, what have been community responses to all of your work and how has this affected your approach whether positive, negative?
Yeah, quite good, for the most part. I have always felt, I mean, I guess in contradiction to some of the things you were saying Rasha. I’ve always felt really embraced by community. I’ve also been lucky enough to form community in different places. This is the third country that I’ve lived in in the last few years and I have felt like every town I’ve been really lucky to find my people it’s sometimes taken a while, and often, I mean, for instances when I was living in France I couldn’t find that many Palestinian-Iraqi Brits, but there were so many people who just sort of understood whatever the French equivalent of struggle or however you want to frame it.
So, I’ve actually felt like I’ve been really supported by the people around me and something I’ve actually been thinking a lot more about as I’m transitioning toward writing more long-form fiction is that there’s a whole industry out there, like the literary world is actually extremely elitist place and there’s a whole industry out there to kind of make sure that only particular stories and particular narratives get heard in any given point and, I will say, I think that to some degree or another, my identity is actually really, it’s kind of in vogue right now, like Britain is perhaps in American, you know, they like the idea that there’s a nice speaking English, someone speaks good English even though that was really terrible English, that grammar.
Someone who, you know, speaks well, someone who speaks good, but looks sort of slightly Western, but slightly Arab and they want these narratives, they want this weird ??? of diversities that actually led to a whole lot more voices, but the problem then becomes is the messaging is completely off, right? So, they’re okay to hear, you know, we’re not in a space where actually Palestinians can get published but what they say can’t get published.
So, certain things which are completely off limits for the mainstream, things like right of return, things like decolonization, things like what actually happened in The Nakba and I find that that’s actually where my challenge is and so this literary world, which is extremely stratified creates space for certain people or for some people at certain times, I should say, and that has been the place where I’ve actually found no community at all. And so, I found individuals with which I am in community, but I haven’t felt like there is community in their truest sense actually. I feel like my community which at times just my friends or my mum, all the time, who’s my biggest fan, and just these sort of, like the worlds that you build in different places, I found that that has actually been, I’ve never really had that many, I’ve always felt real positivity and real love, and even if there’ve been points where it’s led to a crisis of conscience at some point, it’s always calling in not calling out.
I actually think that the biggest, the community that we really need to be like toppling in some form or another are these elitist spaces which historically never made space for us and actually artists of particular backgrounds and now even though they might be seen in a particular way or they might be sexy in a particular packaging, the messages that need to get out or the experiences which actually inform all of our work, the fact that our families are displaced, that’s still not reckoned with in any meaningful sense by the wider community. And I think that’s actually where I find my challenge is.
I feel like I said a few things previously, so I won’t take a lot more. I think that there is, there’s always present, at least I feel this notion of bent Arabiya, so there are visions and understandings of gender. I think that any society has visions and understandings of gender that folks don’t always fit into.
I think some of the things that are interesting for me are like how different pieces of my experience or particularly how being an artist definitely gives a lot more space to be like, “Oh! I guess they’re just gonna do something different now.”
So, I would love to be in literary community with you, so let’s talk. I think there’s some spaces that you might find community in, and I would be excited to talk with you about that. I think a lot about the difference about representation and, like transformation, or mutual aid even, so I’m gonna leave that at that.
I don’t know who my community is in terms of the art that I make. My mom is also my biggest fan and I love her, but, for example, with the film White Fright like I was thinking of the folks in Islamburg and this is, I’m depersonalizing this a little bit, the folks in Islamburg, it was really important to us, to David, who’s the director of the film, and I that they be very happy with the film and so what we did is we showed it to them before we finalized it.
And I think more filmmakers are doing that now. It raises some questions about the documentary field which is also a predominately white male led and controlled field and a lot of conversations are happening now in film festivals around the country in documentary spaces that are trying to confront that and deal with it.
The idea that whiteness isn’t a race and that white people have access to every story and can tell every story, but, I don’t know, like can a person from a certain community tell the story of that community or are they too biased to report on that, like no they’re not, they know that community so they can tell that story.
So, that’s sort of about community more in the sense of what’s happening in the documentary world which is really problematic and hopefully in the process of undergoing, in the process now, of undergoing some changes. But I do want to say that that experience with White Fright has and sharing that experience with other filmmakers is hopefully inspiring both me and other filmmakers to do that kind of work.
To work with the protagonists in their films because we’re telling people’s stories and that’s not, you know, a lot of times filmmakers are like, “well, this is my art,” and, yeah, sure, but it’s that person’s life. So, I’m answering it a little bit different just because I’m trying to depersonalize the idea of our in community and how do you gain buy-in from the folks that you’re working and how do you work in non-exploitative way, how do you use the tools that you have as a person who has access to those tools through whatever means and privileges that we’ve acquired to support another person’s process in telling their story. So, a different way of understanding community, maybe, and critiquing how we do that.
I mean I’m really glad that the film world is having that conversation slowly, but, actually, the other part of that which never really gets talked about is funding, right? You know, we are artists and there’s no money, there’s no money and there’s no one who’s willing to sponsor us. So, it doesn’t actually matter how great our art is or how big our brains are or how, whatever, how close or far from whatever the subject matter is we want to be talking about.
It’s the money that we need access to often is cut off to us, so even while we have made our chops in whatever way and we proved to ourselves in X, Y, Z’s capacity, there is still real impediments to actually getting any financial compensation or enumeration for the fact that we’re doing what we’re doing and so it kind of almost turns into like a pet project or like something we’re passionate about as some abstraction rather than a means of survival and a means of existence.
And, actually, that’s where I feel like the battle needs to be because when we’re talking about kind of inspiring artists and, in the concept of inspiration, is not a cheap labor, you know? And we’re just currently, I think, where I’m yet to experience a transformation in these worlds, the film world, the literary world, you know, the art world, whatever that actually reckons with the question of providing funding for these communities that are underrepresented and marginalized.
Sorry, I just want to say one more thing. I’m currently working on a documentary where I’m in the forms, where I’m applying for money. I’m trying to figure out what stages I’m in, I’m at this stage, and just on my way coming here I was thinking about this film in particular and like yeah what stage am I on and then I realized that the stage that I want to get to is the stage where I’m cutting and debating the narrative with the person about whom this film is about.
But I’m really excited to get to that stage because that is I mean, wow, that’s radical and that’s exciting and to sort of, I’m afraid of getting to that point, I’m afraid of debating how to tell this person’s life story, but also I’m trying to let go of that fear because that’s what a process, you know? And to make the decision, as a filmmaker, to go to into it with really kind of a really open mind about how the narrative is going to be constructed and to do it with that person physically sitting with you. And maybe yelling, you know, whatever the process is gonna be.
Great, thank you so much. Now, can you speak to the significance of creative expression and Palestinian resistance. I feel like a lot of times when we talk about resistance some people get the image it’s like blood and gore, like very political, like slogans, and, like, how is art able to now kind of step to the forefront and how has it always been at the forefront, and Palestinian resistance?
I want to ask have people seen Raed Andoni’s film, Ghost Hunting? Oh, it’s so good and it’s so funny, but it’s like not cause it’s about these male prisoners. It is a very male story, male centered story, but it’s about these prisoners, these men, who reconstruct the prisons that they were in and they play out the torture and they play out the interrogations and it’s funny because it’s Palestinian.
It’s like, this is how Palestinians deal with this stuff and, so, these guys, you know, some of them have these breakthroughs, talk about healing and trauma, on camera where they talk about things that they have never talked about—things that happened between them and their family members in the prison system, but Palestinian art resistance is a lot of that. And, I think, I’m gonna speak to cinema because that’s my world, there’s so many of these Palestinian films that no matter how heavy they get there’s always these moments where if you’re a person who’s familiar with the way that Palestinian society functions, there’s just this moment where you have this break of like that is hilarious and, of course, you were doing this thing while the Israeli soldiers were doing this like evil thing.
I can think of so many examples now in cinema where like an Israeli soldier is depicted as a cartoon and they’re on their way to doing something so awful, but it’s just so funny. And, so that is, sort of like, I think a part of what the resistance is used for in the art world; in addition to telling the stories; in addition to narrating them; in addition to historicizing them is conveying this emotional part, this one piece of how people deal with these things and how we stay human through that trauma. And I think that’s a really exciting thing to continue to look out for and engage with because if survival is about joy and we want to start to imagine what the radical, liberated future Palestine looks like, those are also really important moments to the survival of a people, not just our people, but all people.
I will say, I feel like, I mean my mom is Iraqi, I will say Palestinians have done an incredible job being culturally vibrant over the last 71 years to the point that there are Palestinian, I mean there are Arab film festivals, and there’s Palestine film festivals. In cities all over the U.S. and all over the world, Palestinians have made themselves visible in the most gorgeous and tender way through all different media of art. And it’s not a coincidence I think actually.
The tradition of Palestinian art is as rich, sorry, artist resistance is as rich as other forms of resistance, and I think you read the big names Ghassan Kanafani, Darwish, whatever, and you’re seeing them reverberate through these generations they’re constantly in conversation with Palestinians today. Palestinians today are in conversations with them and actually I’m thinking of my friend, Isabella Hammad published a book called The Parisienne or as the Americans call it, The Parisian, a few months ago and it was just, Robyn Creswell just reviewed it in the New York Review of Books and puts her in conversation with Edward Said, then puts her in conversation with all of the Great’s that came before, you know, Habib and all the rest of it, and it’s because there’s this rich vibrant tradition of understanding Palestinian art as resistance from the moment the Nakba happened if not before and, so, I feel like in many ways this isn’t a new thing, this isn’t a recently discovered thing.
I think it’s actually for me, I feel like I’ve been able to say and express things extremely radical things through poetry in a way I haven’t been able to do through policy or academia, and in large part it’s because art has this really disarming quality about it. And people, the willingness to listen to pain, I think, through art as opposed to through figures and statistics is so much greater and I think that’s why we have such a rich catalog now of amazing Palestinian films, amazing novels, amazing poetry collections, amazing artists.
And even artists who don’t do anything on Palestine, like Samia Halabi’s abstract art. She doesn’t paint Palestine at all, but she, through her own ??? she was born before the state, before the Nakba she’s this artist through which you can see Palestine without looking for Palestine, you know? It has such a resonance, a cultural resonance, so I think it’s actually at the forefront of our resistance and I think it’s sort of something that we partake in all the time as Palestinians. It’s as synonymous for me as being Palestinian, is actually being artistically rich and artistically nuanced and complicated.
And it makes me really proud to be Palestinian actually, like I see these great pieces of art coming out and I’m like, “yeah, that’s my people,” like “we did that,” like “we’re here, we’re doing it,” and, so, for that I feel so grateful to my people and so inspired by them on a daily basis.
One thing that is really exciting to me about having grown up in/with Palestinian family is how much, when you tell them, when you come out to them as a poet, they’re like, “yes! A poet in the family. At last! Finally!” And then you get to hear all the other people who are poets or singers and you’re like, “Oh, yes, this person,” and there’s never a reaction of like, “oh, that’s not practical.” It’s really like, “of course, this skill is like universally important and valuable,” so, and it is. Spoiler alert. But I want to offer a few citations.
As you both were talking I was thinking about like pieces of art in resistance and some of them that are not as contemporary, right? To really lift up that this has been present, so something that I think you can find on Youtube is look up Women and Struggle is a documentary about Palestinian women activists in Palestine, and that I think is really worthwhile to take a look at it because there are not very many women whose activism is featured particularly, not from that era. There’s also online you can find the Palestinian Poster Archive which is a tremendous visual art like archive, so I think that, you know, I see some folks who maybe have…
I’m laughing because I worked at the PPPA for like years…
So, I don’t know anything of the story of what that experience was like, but I will say that the amazing visual history of being able to see and as someone who comes from, as you saw, doing graphic design work for social movements to be able to return and look at that visual language of communication for how do we communicate the work that we’re doing in community that is a bridge between art and that making of social spaces.
I’m thinking of also, Carlton Turners, who’s a black Mississippi artist, who I’m very grateful to have spent time with through my work with alternate routes, and he talks a lot about how essential cultural change is before any other change can happen. And that, cultural change is really about everything. It is about how we are in our families; it’s about how we are at work; how we are at school; how we are socially with each other in any room that we get to; how we are in civic society together; how we are with ourselves; and, how we understand our own values, and that culture is formed and informed by so many arts, including food, including film, including fashion, including writing and literature, and song, and the stories we tell at night.
You know, the bedtime stories and songs that mother’s sing to children, or any parent sings to a child, that these are pieces that form how we know what we value, how we share it with each other, and every society and culture has those. And art, to me I feel, it’s one of these unfortunate things, like I do wish there was more funding for art, but I also wish there was deeper integration of art and an understanding that art isn’t some separate thing that only people who are professional artists can do—that art is present whenever you make a cup of tea for someone you love or prepare a meal or make phone call and sing happy birthday. You know, they’re all of these pieces that our cultural practices that have artistry to them and that are transformative, they make the meaning of our lives.
I’m inspired to give two citations really quick. Thank you for that. Dana Aburahma’s Kingdom of Women, I don’t know where you can get it. It’s really good. It’s older, but it’s about the women who were keeping Ein El Helwe moving and alive during the war of the camps in the 1980s.
A newer film, Gessica Généus, who’s a Haitian filmmaker, her film Douvan Jou Ka Leve—have no idea where you can find it. We screened it at Black Star last year. It might be the best documentary I have ever seen and Douvan Jou Ka Leve, which I think means “and tomorrow the sun will rise” or something like that. But her name is Gessica Généus, she’s a genius and it’s a phenomenal film about the history of Haiti and voodoo and mental illness and colonialism and it’s just so brilliant. It’s a personal story, it’s about her mom. It’s really great.
Okay, last question. Do you feel creative resistance by people like yourselves reshapes perceptions of gender within resistance movements and, if so, how?
Okay, I got bars for this. I’m prepared. I’m prepared. So, this is actually a topic that I talked about earlier this year at the Association of Writers Programs, which is the U.S.’s biggest writing conference. So, I think that if we center gender and sexuality that we can’t pretend that the past, or even the present realities of Arab and indigenous communities were in some pre-colonization state of perfect grace.
And I think the other thing that we recognize is that there are a lot of experiences of gender and sexuality that have entered communities that have been colonized as an experience of colonization. And that those things are often things that are blamed on those communities that have experienced colonization when in reality those really rigid expectations around gender and sexuality are part of the residue of colonization and that there are actually experiences of our communities, there are wisdoms and knowledges and cultural practices that actually give us a lot more space in terms of gender and sexuality.
And so, I think a lot about our responses as queer folks, our mixed inheritances, like what kinds of ingredients we’re putting together to sort of make, to mix my metaphors, to make these bridges that we might walk over, they include the pasts glories and its damages. And I think they include a lot about the present day demands and joys and when I think about gender and sexuality in the context of culture I also think about the future possibilities and risks, like if we center people who are most endangered in our communities, then we create safety for everyone.
If we think about what it would mean for folks who are most endangered to be safe then, or to thrive, or to be fed, then that opens up so much possibility for the world that we could make together. And I also want to offer that centering the leadership of queer folks and women creates a lot of new possibilities because those are the folks who need them the most often, like to eat, to sleep, to have a home, to find love, to make friends, and I think that those are the leadership of women and queer and trans folks, is the leadership that I look to the most for blueprints about making what hasn’t existed yet, and things that we desperately need for our survival as all communities and not just within Arab or Palestinian communities. I could go on, but that’s all.
I will say two things. To do research for the film that I’m working on now I had to, I read a lot of biography and I read the biography of Claudia Jones who was a communist, who’s buried left of Karl Marx—there’s a book called Left of Karl Marx, but she’s buried to the left of Karl Marx and is to the left of Karl Marx politically.
And I read the autobiography of Ella Baker, and just kind of reshaped the way, decolonized my mind from the way that we think about movements and the way that we think particularly about women in those social movements. There’s a possibility, I may have learned, there’s a possibility that the Palestinian women prisoners led the first hunger strike in the prisons. There’s a possibility. I can’t say that that’s a 100 percent fact, but it might be.
So, those kinds of those narratives are really great in terms of, and very important, in terms of reshaping the way that we think about how social movements have historically worked; how social movements work today; how social movements are going to work in the future; and, the centrality of women. And then to talk a little bit about gender nonconformity as kind of another space. This year at Black Star—and this is a little bit more about the role of the curator and the importance of curation as a place that can be grounded in a philosophy and a politic—we’re screening two films together.
One of them is from India, it’s a feature-length documentary about, I don’t want to say queer because I heard the filmmakers speak about the film and she insisted that the folks in the film in India don’t necessarily call themselves queer, but folks who are, in the way that she talks about it, these are folks who are making decisions about their life, their gender, their sexuality, and just making those decisions about how they’re gonna live in doing it.
And so, we paired it with a short film from the United States by filmmaker who is transgender and so what we’re interested in engaging in conversations about how gender, gender identity, and gender discourse can be different across our national borders, our cultural understandings, and so I don’t know have an answer except to say that these are the kinds of spaces that as a curator, as an artist, you can try to have these conversations that are very complex and maybe we don’t necessarily have the language yet to talk about in terms of how do we talk about different gender identities across these borders and barriers, and there’s oceans, and there’s fake borders, and real borders between us, but how do we begin to have those conversations and to find the language around it. And to sort of break it down and then reconstruct it or something like that. So, the answer is yes.
Okay, thank you so much again for dedicating your time, your presence, and the space; and, to all of you….
I realize I was talking about gender within community and one thing that I want to just mark is the way is the way in which gender expression and the articulation of gender disrupts a lot of very confused and damaging notions that come externally from our, about our community and about Palestinians, right?
So, I mentioned earlier, like at the top of my intro, that my identity sounds like science fiction to some folks. And so I think that my experience is that when I show up in spaces and when people that I work with show up in spaces that it breaks open this space for people to have a completely different understanding about what it means to be Palestinian; what it means to be Arab; what it means to even be a southerner, like to show up in other spaces in the U.S. where people aren’t from the South and to really articulate that like, yes, I’m a southerner, like very much multi-generation, born in the same hospital my great-grandmother was born in. So, yeah, that’s the last piece I wanted to say.
Cool. Well, thank you again for all your responses. I feel like really enlightened right now. I just want to soak all that in. So, can we just get another round of applause for our panelists.